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Shaping the Data Science Field at Snap while Raising 2 Children

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This is an excerpt from HackerRank’s Moms Who Code initiative. Read all of the interviews.  


Sonali Son has always been passionate about both applied math and the social sciences. Now, she’s helping shape today’s field of data science. 3 years ago, she joined Snap’s data science team right after having her first son. While at Snap, she also had a daughter who is now 16 months old. Sonali currently manages Snap’s monetization data science engineering team.

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1. How did you begin your career in data science?

I started my career in roles that required a statistician with software skills. Quickly I found myself extracting unstructured data nested in messy log files on routers and servers. The merger of skills between engineering and statistics opened up a world of insight which seemed unattainable for researchers in analytical roles because of the technical skills gap and there’s where I often stepped in. Over time, I have gotten the chance to use these skills from advertising to cloud computing performance to auction design.

I attribute my growth to great managers, who created an open space for self-learning and analytical problem solving while advocating for my ability to take on new challenges. Little did those managers know, they helped shape today’s field of Data Science. A new generation of Data Scientists have entered the field with machine learning, applied statistics and coding skills and I have transitioned to building the careers of these engineers. I have found a passion for cultivating our organizational understanding of how to use data science engineering to tackle our hardest problems while challenging the team to apply their skills to new problems.

2. What do you enjoy the most about your job and what’s something you’ve created at Snap that you’re particularly proud of?

Snap is one of the few companies where engineers have a direct impact on the technical direction of a product while impacting a significant number of users globally. The responsibility and impact of our work are shared and that translates into a feeling that we are all, as a team and organization, moving towards a common vision.

This also goes for building our engineering culture and organization. I am most proud of the work in the last year of creating a cohesive vision of data science engineering at Snap by building out our promotion ladder and our hiring and interviewing culture. It’s rare to have the chance to shape an organization at that level and has been a tremendous learning opportunity.

3. How has Snap supported you as a working mom?

The single biggest impact for me was having a supporting and encouraging manager and team. My return to work without the right culture and management ethos would have just been an additional layer of stress.

For example, Snap has invested heavily in creating managers as Snap Leaders. As a manager, I learned to delegate and grow engineers who are confident and reliable. As a result, if I am completely offline during our family’s evening and bedtime routine, my team also knows when and how to get a hold of me. The same goes for when they have their own obligations. As a result of learning to delegate, we all have a sense of prioritization and general balance.

4. People often struggle to balance their passions for their careers and their responsibilities as a parent. What is the one thing you have adopted to balance both and keep you sane?

Going back to work after my second child, I was so tired. My days were capped by nursing a baby to sleep. By the end of the day, I would get some work done and go straight to bed.

To keep myself challenged intellectually, I decided to sign up for an Udacity course on deep learning as a way to brush up on skills that I didn’t use as much as a manager and add intellectual stimulation. It was a promise to spend at least 20 minutes after bedtime on anything not related to work or sleep. It was a game changer. Since then, I have used that time to learn options trading and currently I’m doing yoga.

5. Are there any working mothers or women in tech in general who really inspire you?

Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, and her recent book tour has been an inspiration because she broke through the illusion that you can have it all or that you’re doing something wrong if you don’t or can’t. It’s hard to juggle modern parenthood and work, especially when you can’t necessarily lean on additional child-care or administrative help. Added to that is an impression that your career will halt completely if you prioritize parenthood. In reality, both obligations require constant negotiations and tradeoffs.

6. Is there any advice you’d like to share with other working mothers or women in tech in general?

During the toughest days, I lean on two pieces of advice: 1. This time with my children doesn’t last very long and 2. The seat at the board isn’t going anywhere. Career opportunities will continue to arise as long as I continue to learn and enjoy myself.

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